By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Fans of Blue Bell ice cream celebrated the return of the popular brand on Monday in parts of Texas and Alabama, four months after it was withdrawn from the market after being linked to cases of Listeria, three of them fatal.
Blue Bell trucks delivered half-gallon tubs of four flavors: Cookies'n Cream, Dutch Chocolate, Homemade Vanilla and The Great Divide in the first phase of a gradual return to full production.
"There's been a steady of flow of customers buying Blue Bell ice cream. They're happy to see it back. Most people are taking their limit of four tubs," said Larry Hargis, manager of H-E-B supermarket in Blue Bell's hometown of Brenham, which saw job losses this year when the dairy company shut down production.
"We still have some left, and we're taking another delivery in a little while," Hargis said.
Blue Bell laid off 235 full-time and 109 part-time workers, more than a third of its workforce, due to the shutdown. That followed 10 reported cases of listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food containing the bacteria. Three of those infected died.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Economic Development, Jay Williams, said at a news conference in Brenham on Monday that the federal government is granting the city $1.35 million for a technical education center to provide workforce training.
"We love Blue Bell here in Brenham," said Page Michel, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. "From school kids to adults, we will be hitting the stores, trying to get some ice cream."
"One gentleman said he was bringing a refrigerated truck from Virginia, and he wanted to load it up and bring it home," Michel added.
Blue Bell received a $135 million investment from Texas billionaire Sid Bass, which helped it keep testing while its product was off the market.
So far only one Blue Bell plant, in Alabama, is producing ice cream, so sales will be phased in over several weeks. Eventually it will be re-introduced to the 25 states where it was distributed before production was halted.
Blue Bell is awaiting permission from health authorities before reopening plants in Brenham and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
"Over the past several months, we have been working to make our facilities even better, and to make sure everything we produce is safe, wholesome and of the highest quality," said Ricky Dickson, Blue Bell's vice president for sales and marketing.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas and Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Eric Walsh)